September 28, 2018

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I’m sitting in a semi-dilapidated lounge room. The wind is howling outside the window beside me, and there’s a small teddy bear in an aviator’s outfit looking at me from across the room. It’s been a weird twenty-four hours in Berlin.

Berlin is the last stop in our Germany tour. It started with the adorable mountain town of Mittenwald, after which we parted ways with my parents and headed north to Freiburg. Here we explored perhaps .000001 percent of the black forest (it’s not that we were lazy, it’s just very big) and soaked up some sun as we walked around the active university town. Then it was on to Bamberg where our accommodation was not only exceptional but came with free pasta (which Holly was very excited about) and a lolly jar (which I was very excited about). Bamberg proved to be a delight. Beautiful wood and plaster buildings sat astride canals, breweries were spotted everywhere, and an old and mostly empty castle sat on a hill overlooking it all. The days were hot and pleasant and full.

Then it was onto Berlin, where we had five whole days to explore the historic city. We arrived to heat. We stepped off the train, laden with backpacks, into thirty degree sun, our accommodation a four kilometer walk in front of us. We sweated our way there but were relieved to find the key where we were told it would be and gain access without too much trouble. Until we found the apartment occupied. Not with people, just things. Clutter. Rubbish. I was sure we had somehow entered the wrong place and that the real homeowner would come home any minute, confused as to why two Australian backpackers were standing in their living room. Holly checked the details, no, we were definitely in the right place, it just turned out the guy hadn’t felt the need to clean his apartment before renting it out. The place was a mess. Two big bags of recycling lay in the kitchen, as did cutlery and plates that looked like they’d been put away dirty. The bed had not been changed, the towels were questionable, and he had junk lying around everywhere. Then we opened the fridge. It was full of expired food and smelt like it, mostly thanks to one particularly old chunk of parmesan.

He will not be getting a good review.

We had two options; find a new place to stay or get cleaning. We got cleaning. Luckily the place had a washing machine, which we put every piece of linen through. We did a number of trips down to the bins on the ground floor to get rid of all the trash, including most of his fridge items. The kitchen got a full do over, and we moved the junk out of the way where we could. It wasn’t perfect, but it was livable, and at the very least felt a lot cleaner than when we’d entered. That night, to reward ourselves for our hard work, we cooked a delicious meal of chicken and salad and watched a movie about hobbits.

While we slept, winter descended. Well, actually autumn, but it felt like winter due to the sudden shift in temperature. It went from thirty degrees to six degrees overnight. I left the apartment the next morning in a t-shirt, not quite realising the extent the weather had changed. That did not last long.

We made our way towards Brandenburg Gate, where we were meeting up for a walking tour. As we walked I took in the city for the first time, without heat or backpacks weighing me down. Berlin is not a pretty city. Despite having such a long and intense history, little of it is depicted in its architecture like other European cities–this is of course due its aforementioned history, with over eighty percent of the city destroyed by bombings during World War Two. I found the surface of Berlin to look rather grey, its buildings large and boxy, with greenery lacking.

But that was just the surface. There is a depth to Berlin, one deep and stratified. Scratching the surface I realised that in fact Berlin’s history was present in its architecture. Unassuming lines of cobblestones that twisted and curled through the city’s streets were actually guidelines showing where the Berlin wall had once stood. The pedestrian crossing-light man, a funny little character in a hat known as Ampelmann, was also a relic from that time, one of the few vestiges of East Berlin that remains. Over here was a statue soldiers had once hidden behind during World War Two, bullet holes still evident in the marble. And over there a monster of a building, now tax offices, once part of the Nazi headquarters. And in that direction the location of Hitler’s bunker, now unadorned and unmaked, a car park to apartment buildings. Then there was the holocaust monument. Over two thousand blocks of grey concrete of differing sizes, some the size of my foot, others towering above me, a maze that demanded its occupants walk single file, an environment that forced me to think about what it stood for. It was ugly, yet beautiful, alluring and thought-provoking. It was Berlin.

We left the city center and walked outwards, towards a location some friends had recommended, and discovered another layer to Berlin. Multicultural streets, emphasis on the culture. Vietnam turned into Thailand, which then became little Turkey, except it wasn’t that little. It was all a bit of a shock to me, not because it was unwelcome, just because everywhere else we had been in Germany had been, well, Germanic. Gone were the biergartens and timber filled eateries. No steins or lederhosen existed here. It was like walking into a different country, a number of different countries, actually.

Then we made it to our location and found yet another layer to Berlin. The hipster scene. Admittedly we had already noticed this earlier as it was written large in the odd little cafes and bars, the style of the young (and not so young) locals, the shopfronts selling things from the quirky to the outright odd. But it was here, further out from the city that we reached its peak; literally and figuratively. We entered a fairly standard looking shopping mall, tiers of artificially lit stores towering above us, and, following the instructions of our friends, Erica and Brian, moved straight to the elevator, where we had been informed to go up to level 5, a parking lot, and then follow the stream of people. We went up and exited. We tailed, at a distance, two alternative looking gents round to the other side of the car park where a curved ramp led us up to a rooftop bar that practically screamed, smelled, and tasted of hipster. It was amazing. We ordered two beers, sat, and looked out at the oddity that is Berlin.

Drinks finished, we moved on to our final location for the day, yet another layer, an abandoned airfield, now enormous park, full of families, food trucks, and festivities. This weird and wonderful place had been recommended to us by a number of people but we were there, in particular, for one very special reason. Family/friends, Dom and Nikki, who had travelled with us earlier in the trip had also visited Berlin three weeks prior. Knowing we would be winding our way there after them I asked, mostly joking, that they leave something for us to find. They succeeded in this mission in a big big way. A few days prior Dom had sent us cryptic clues to solve which had led us to the airfield. Then we had received instructions and photos which would take us to the treasure. We made our way off the main runway down a small goat trail, and past three skinny white trees. Behind that was a small hill, with a number of large rocks at its base. After some discussion about which rock was our rock, we pulled one back to find a small zip-lock bag, a discoloured note and new best friend hidden inside. The note informed us that our new friend, a tiny bear in an aviators outfit, was called Flysie McFly’s-a-lot, and that he was in fact a protector, tasked with keeping us safe for the rest of our travels. I lost my mind. A treasure hunt was exciting enough but to know that this bear and note had been lying under a rock for three weeks, waiting for us, as who knows how many people passed it by, blew me away. I thought it was beyond cool, and still do, but then the weird coolness was about to increase. In the distance we noticed something in the sky. Many somethings. Kites, of all sizes, shapes, colours, and designs, moving in spirals and waves, a crowd of people underneath them. A kite flying festival had been scheduled for that day and we’d been lucky enough to stumble upon it. Flysie was very excited.

After being spellbound and shocked by the events of the day we made it back to our dirty-now-clean apartment, where I am writing these words to you.

We have spent just over twenty four hours here, but already I feel I can say this: Berlin is a place full of history and hipsters. A city older than some, and yet feels young. It is a city of layers and dirt, containing secrets and mysteries and hidden treasures.

Or at least, that was my impression of it. No doubt it looks a little different to everyone who visits.

I wonder how it would look to you.

Talk soon

Damian

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P.S. We also got Flysie a little drunk to make up for his weeks hiding under a rock…

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September 15, 2018

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I am currently sitting on a dock in a town called Bregenz, in the very west of Austria. Across the water, not too far, as I can make out the individual buildings and towers, sits Germany.

It has been a big couple of weeks.

Travel wise, since last I wrote on here, the Lady Holly and I have moved on from Ireland, into Amsterdam, then Slovenia, then by train back to Vienna, and onwards into Austria, passing through Salzburg, Innsbruck, Bludenz and now here.

Life wise, outside of travel, my family has experienced a birth, a wedding, and a death.

So where to start, right? Let’s start with the birth.

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Holly and I were in Dublin, waiting at the airport, when a message came through informing me that my sister Angela’s water had broken while she and my brother-in-law, Ben, had been dining at a cafe. It was just past four in the morning for us, and the news instantly broke us from our sleep deprived exhaustion into excitement. We knew it was early days birth-wise, but still, our new nephew, Eli, was on his way. We boarded our short flight to Amsterdam hoping we wouldn’t have to wait too long before more news arrived.

The day in Amsterdam was excellent. Not only was the city a treat, full of people, history, canals, and the pervasive smell of weed, but the day was also spotted with updates about the birth. It started slow, as these things seem to do, and escalated with news both good and bad. Angela would need to be induced but both she and Eli were doing well.

Our day continued. We ate waffles, walked through the red light district, visited a coffee house, and through it all Angela was was experiencing the joy of contractions. After some trouble with taxis we made it back to our accommodation, ate a quick dinner and by the time we were ready for bed Angela and co were still going strong. Just before we went to sleep we were told that she would need an epidural.

Another four am start for us, another airport, and Angela was still in labour. Then came the news she’d feared most, despite another night of Ang working hard, Eli wasn’t down far enough for her to dilate to the required diameter. She was going to need a caesarean. It was time to board our plane.

Our flight took us from Amsterdam to Ljubljana, in Slovenia; our third airport in two days. Here we were meeting up with two close friends/family, Dom and Nikki, but had an hour or so to wait before they would arrive in a car that would take the four of us to Lake Bled for the next five days. During that time our phones binged with the blessed news that Eli had entered the world, all were fine, and then best of all, that first photo; wrinkly and pink and perfect, Eli, with his two exhausted but exultant parents around him.

He is now, and will forever be, our family.

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Next came the wedding, but before that we visited some of the most glorious countryside I have ever seen.

Slovenia is an unspoken gem of a country. It contains startlingly blue lakes that pair perfectly with their high reaching mountains and lush green forests. It has incredible gorges, magical goat branded beer, and, possibly the number one reason to visit, borek. I suggest going there with people who like to eat and drink, swim and sight-see, play card games and have nightly chats. That was my experience. I hope never to forget it.

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Then it was on to the wedding.

My twin brother, best friend, and womb mate, Jonathan, was days away from marrying his fiance’, best friend, and long distance love, Alexandra. That has been the biggest opponent for these two during their relationship, distance. While Austria and Australia may only be two letters different it turns out that doesn’t make it any easier for a citizen of one country to go live with a citizen of the other. As such Jonathan has been living and working in London for the duration of their three year relationship, where he was able to get a visa, and has flown back and forth to Vienna probably more times than I ever drove to my fiances’ house, back before she moved in with me. Long distance is a bitch, especially when you’re already half a world away from the rest of your family and friends, but amazingly and admirably, they have made it work, and soon, hopefully very soon, they will get to live in the same country, the same city, the same apartment. A reward they have well and truly earned.

But first they had to get married. While we four had been training it to Vienna, the rest of my family had likewise been converging towards the Austrian capital. Jonathan had gotten there a week earlier after finishing his last stint of work in London before the wedding. My parents had arrived a few days before us, and my brother, Matt, sister in law, Rose, and their two kids, Ella and Harry, had gotten in a day after them. Only Ang and Ben were unfortunately missing due to the aforementioned arrival of Eli.

The happy couple’s two families met across a feast, where a love of food (and Jon and Alex) bonded both sides quickly. The day after we prepped the wedding venue, a beautiful wood and stone building located on the vine covered hills just outside of Vienna. The following day was the wedding.

I won’t run through every detail of the day, as I think that would be more for my benefit than yours, but I will tell you it was the greatest joy watching the brother I’ve shared so much with marry the woman he loves, even if I didn’t understand a single word of the ceremony (it was in German). I’m not sure I expected to feel as full of love and happiness for them as I did. Not because I thought I would feel nothing, just because I had already seen how committed these two were to each other. But of course a wedding is so much more than just a ceremony. It’s something magic. It’s the saying of words, the signing of a document, a kiss, an applause, and somewhere amongst it all a new family is created.

I felt all of this. I saw the love on my brothers face, the unbridled happiness emanating from my new sister, and I saw a life ahead of them where no matter what else happened they would always have this, they would always have each other, and I knew my brother would be okay. More than okay. It made me so excited for what comes next.

The night that followed featured a smorgasbord of food (I made myself sick with eating), dancing till my feet hurt (including a flash mob routine to surprise the bride and groom), and hugging my brother (while consistently asking him where his wife was just to enjoy the novelty of mentioning that he had a wife).

It was an excellent day, which is fortunate, because we’ll be repeating it in a years time when they get remarried in Australia.

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The final part unfortunately features a death.

After parting ways with first Dom and Nikki, and then Jon and Alex, so they could head off on their honeymoon, Holly, myself, my parents, Matt, Rose, and the kids hopped on a train and headed for the Alps.

Western Austria has shown itself to be some simply stunning countryside. It didn’t take long after leaving Vienna before we headed into mountain country, the enormous entities rearing up all around us on every side, with us in the middle, marvelling at the scope and size of these land formations that are such a rarity back home.

Mountains never seem to stop impressing and amazing me. There is something so exhilarating about seeing something so big that you can’t take it all in with a single glance, or two, or three. My brain wants to devour every detail, but simply can’t, so instead I look at the patchwork features, the runnels of rivers, spots of vegetation–small green patches that are in reality swarths of giant evergreens–the shear slopes where almost unimaginable sized chunks of land fell away at some point in the distant past. All of it makes me feel so small and so large at the same time, both the giant and the fly, gets my heart racing, and yet my only real way of expressing these sentiments while I’m feeling them is to say, ‘Wow, would you look at that.’

Given all this, it’s a good thing I’m visiting Austria.

We headed first to Salzburg. The kids did a mighty job of walking through the quaint cobbled old town, then up to the castle on the hill. We visited Hallstatt, the epitome of beautiful lakeside Austrian towns, then drove on to Innsbruck, another gorgeous old mountain city that made me wonder if I shouldn’t just follow my brother, pack up my bags, and move to Austria. All this was spread over four days, at the end of which we kissed and hugged Matt, Rose, Ella, and Harry goodbye as they headed on and down into Croatia.

Holly, Mum, Dad, and I continued on, driving further into the mountains to a place called Bludenz. But just before that came the news that my nanna, my mothers mum, had had a stroke, fallen into a coma, and had been placed in palliative care.

It was sad, but the sadness was lessened by her age and senility, as my nanna had fallen deep into dementia in the last few years. Mostly I felt sad for my mum. She was understandably upset that she couldn’t be there during this time, or be there for her sister, who was missing my mums support. And of course for the loss that still remained. That she was about to lose that last part of her mum that she had, even if it was mostly her physical presence at this stage.

What came next was one of the nicest days I’ve ever shared with my parents. It was our second day in Bludenz and we’d decided to take the cable car up the mountain behind our accommodation where Holly had found out a number of walks existed. Muttersberg was the mountain and even just stepping off the cable car we knew we were onto something good. The view, the town below us surrounded by mountains, was amazing. It would prove to pall against what we were soon to visit.

We headed up, the first leg of our trek being a steep consistent uphill that led us quickly above the cable car hut, and further, through the dense vegetation on the mountainside. We pit-stopped and had a snack, still unable to believe the shear beauty that stretched out in front of us. We continued on, step by step making it further uphill, legs aching at the constant incline, until suddenly we breached a ridge and found ourselves at the top. The view there was like nothing I’d ever seen before. We stood on top of a mountain, and everywhere around us, reaching right to the horizon, where more and more mountains. If you remember how much I like mountains you can start to imagine just how astounded I was. How astounded we all were. This was something special. Something I’m happy to have been able to share with my parents and my partner, and just to have seen at all. We then did what anyone would do in that situation; we sat and ate lunch.

We made it back down the mountain, dined on pizza and beer, and the next day we drove to Bregenz. There our phones binged with the sad news that Nana had left the world, in a hospital room with two of her daughters and husband beside her.

It was a good thing all told, as she’d never wished to live with dementia, nor was she really herself anymore. While death is never without loss no matter at what time it comes, it’s important to remember that although we’ve lost the person, the life they lived still exists.

I was glad to be able to be there for my mum. To be able to give her a hug, make stupid jokes, and let her talk through what she was feeling. Being overseas these last couple of months means I’ve missed out on things back home, but I’m glad I was able to be there for this.

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I’m now in Mittenwald, Germany, sitting in the shadow of yet another stunning mountain, a grapefruit radler in front of me.

In just over three weeks I’ve met my new nephew through photos and video chat, teared up as my brother said ‘I do” in German, and lost the first of my four grandparents.

Even when I think I’ve put my life on pause, life continues on.

I’m glad it does.

Talk soon,

Damian